Leadership: Throw out the hierarchy and look within
Who are the leaders within your organization? Are they so named simply because they “manage” people, or do they have other qualities that have nothing to do with title and rank? More importantly, can leadership be learned?
It sure can.
My colleague Jim Morris and I see this all the time in the leadership institutes we facilitate for clients like the City of Portland. Like many organizations today, the City understands that formal authority is not the only model of leadership. People at all levels are leading task forces, advisory groups, or multi-bureau work groups whose members may be located in different places and where formal line authority is diffuse, distributed, or absent altogether. What we’ve found is that leadership is the ability to influence others and affect change – regardless of one’s position on the organizational chart.
The Institute is modeled on the research of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who found that effective leaders across the globe employ very similar practices—all of which can be taught and learned. They are:
- Inspire a shared vision. From shared goals to a shared vision, effective leaders are able to help others see the end point – what everyone is working together to build.
- Model the way. Effective leaders walk their talk, even when the going is tough. They earn trust because they consistently demonstrate their values and principles.
- Challenge the process. Leaders are bold. They ask tough questions and aren’t afraid to point out the “elephant in the room.”
- Enable others to act. Rather than go it alone, leaders invite participation and encourage others to develop new skills and knowledge.
- Encourage the heart. Perhaps most importantly, leaders understand that leadership is all about relationships. So they work on a personal level, recognizing others for their contributions.
The Institute is a bonding experience for participants. One recent cohort had sweatshirts made that displayed their group’s name – High Impact Leadership Team (HILT) – next to the hilt of a sword. But its primary impact may be in how it shifts people’s self-perception. One emerging leader who had been puzzled by her nomination to the Institute had this to say about her experience:
“Now I see that what I’ve been doing is a form of leadership. I have the power to help others be more effective as we work together. It [the Institute] was an awesome experience to work with everyone and see how differently we approach our leadership possibilities.”
Jim and I learn more about leadership with each Institute we lead. Each one confirms our belief that leadership is a form of performance art, and the instrument is self.
– Arty Trost, Portland, OR
Four steps to becoming a strategic storyteller
Research tells us humans are hard-wired to be storytellers. It’s our default method for giving meaning to the otherwise random events of life. And hearing stories is one way we simulate situations and learn before actually experiencing them. Similarly, stories invite others to participate and emotionally engage with the messages or morals they convey.
This more recent understanding of the dominant role stories play in human interactions is why so many communications advisers are urging organizations to embrace storytelling in their marketing, outreach, and fundraising.
From where I sit, this is sound advice. But it begs the question: Out of the dozens of stories potentially at our disposal, how do we decide which ones to develop and share? In other words, how can we be strategic about the stories we tell, rather than simply grasping for any good-sounding tale that comes along?
Here are four suggestions:
1. To be a strategic storyteller, be a strategic organization.
Many organizations fail to pause from the daily grind to take a long look at their mission, identity, goals, and measurable impact. Want to decide which stories to tell? Start by making sure your strategic plan is up to date. The first step in strategic storytelling is knowing where your organization is headed and why, and whose support you’ll need to reach your destination. The stories you choose should be those that move you closer to your most important goals by moving others to lend their support. And remember, during the planning process, stories are bound to surface. Don’t lose them.
2. It’s not about you.
That’s another way of saying, choose stories about “them” — constituents, donors, volunteers, partners. One of the ways people decide what to do in a given situation is to ask what would individuals “like me” do? Research tells us we are not purely self-interested actors. We often want to know not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for my group. (See the terrific book, “Made to Stick,” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.) Select and tell stories that feature members of the groups you want to engage. Help your audience connect to what their peers believe or do relative to your organization.
3. It’s all about you.
That’s right, it’s not about you, except when it is! That means knowing “who” you are as an organization — your identity or brand. What makes you distinct among organizations similar to you and what makes you relevant to the people who matter to your success? Strategic storytelling means selecting stories that are consistent with who you are and how you want others to experience your organization. What do you stand for or promise to your stakeholders? Be clear about this, deliver on your promise, and tell the stories of people who’ve benefited from their experience of you.
4. Be real.
No organization is perfect. Making mistakes comes with the territory. More important is how you have responded to your mistakes. What are the stories that don’t have happy endings in your organization? Don’t be afraid to tell them from time to time. It will build trust and help others learn from your mistakes. And who knows how many happy endings will follow from there?
– Rich Bruer, Portland, OR